Occupy Wall Street Is Building its Own Social Network

Organization's a problem, so a bunch of programmers made their own version of Facebook to solve it

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If the Occupy Wall Street movement is "America's first true Internet-era movement," as CNN's Douglas Rushkoff contended in a blog post last week, it's actual Internet presence leaves a lot to be desired. He called the protest "a way of life that spreads through contagion [and] creates as many questions as it answers." And instead of identifying its enemy and fighting, "Occupy Wall Street just sits there talking with itself, debating its own worth, recognizing its internal inconsistencies and then continuing on as if this were some sort of new normal."  So, to try to apply some of the Internet's ability to get groups talking, Occupy Wall Street is getting its own social network. Due to launch on Thursday night, the goal of the homegrown Facebook analog is to give the movement's disparate members, organizers, and working groups a central place to communicate online. Its developers hope the site will work as a microcosm of the community that's sprung up in Zuccotti Park, which they see in turn as a microcosm for the kind of society they want to create.

The new site, called nycga.net (for New York City Genral Assembly) and developed in open-source WordPress with a plug-in called BuddyPress, works as an electronic representation of the GA meeting. "Essentially, the site is the general assembly," said Drew Hornbein, a 24-year-old web developer from Brooklyn. Hornbein and five other guys -- the members of the amorphous Internet working group that happened to show up that day -- sat around a table Wednesday night in Charlotte's Place, a free, public space operated by the Trinity Wall Street Episcopal church around the corner from Zuccotti Park. They were putting the finishing touches on nycga.net and arguing about how to keep it open to all. Jonathan Thaler, a 47-year-old mobile web developer from the Upper West Side who left a 15-year career at Standard and Poor's, asked how members of a group could communicate without posting their conversation publicly. "I bring my corporate baggage with me," Thaler later said. "But I love this. Five minutes after I stepped off the sidewalk, I was collaborating with people."

Jake DeGroot, a 26-year-old theater lighting designer from Queens who's helping develop the new site, said it would give the encampment's so-called working groups the chance to communicate with each other and the rest of the camp about the very real problems that this idealistic society faces. For example, what to do about those folks who come for the free food and freewheeling atmosphere and bring their drugs and violent tendencies? "In order to resolve those situations, we have a whole bunch of groups to take care of it. We have de-escalation and mediation, and security of course, and conflict resolution and town planning to talk about how the space is laid out, and medics to deal with any health repercussions," DeGroot says. But those groups can't get on the same page, DeGroot said, so they can't figure out how to solve the squatter problem. Plus, enforcing codes of conduct can be tough in a situation where nobody has authority and everything rides on consensus. "It’s a very tense thing. If security tries to enforce a code of conduct, a lot of people in camp will say, 'how dare you take authority? You have no authority over anyone here.' " In the encampment, the only authority comes through consensus. The site, DeGroot said, will "make the concerns more apparent to everyone in camp so that we have an easier time getting to consensus."

So the main purpose of the new site is to give each of the groups their own page, where members discuss how to do whatever it is they're working on, then those pages' feeds get posted on a central activity feed, which acts sort of like a Facebook news feed for the entire site. Members can also post individually on the main feed, and can message each other privately, but otherwise activity on the site is public. There's also an event calendar, bulletin board, and a weather forecast.

"The two troubles we have are that groups don't know what each other are doing, or we get a bottleneck with website administrators," Hornbein said. "The problem comes in when you have a set of administrators who are writing posts on behalf of the general assembly. That’s when issues arise because if I’m writing a post on occupywallst.org and I editorialize it at all, that could be perceived as the general assembly saying this, and that’s the issue." With nycga, the idea is that all the posts on the main feed come either from working groups or individuals. "The general assembly itself says very little." Administrators, Hornbein said, could remove inappropriate posts, but he doesn't think that will be a problem. "This isn’t an outward-facing site. This isn’t occupywallst.org, where people come and they really troll. It’s fairly boring stuff, it’s talking about what sanitation did today. And we catch most of the trolls on the main occupywallst.org website and are free to talk business on the nycga site."

Here are a couple more prototype images:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.